Friday, August 29, 2008

There's No Substitute for Correct Procedure

Lately, I've become a stickler for the correct substitution procedure. I was reading through "Advice to Referees" and came across section 3.4. Now, I've read the entire publication a couple of times, but this time a particular line caught my eye:

Referees who deviate from the formal process by which a substitute becomes a player - whether in the interest of saving time or because the steps are thought to be too complex and cumbersome - do so at their own peril and will eventually discover that the Laws of the Game specify the procedure for very good reasons.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to do anything that has the word "peril" associated with it. In all seriousness, I think the substitution procedure is the area where most youth referees get sloppy. In my area, I have not seen any referee enforcing the correct substitution procedure (let me know if this is not the case where you are). Typically, substitutions work like this:
  1. Referee stops play

  2. Coach yells "Sub!"

  3. Substitutes run onto the field, directly from the bench, yelling their relieved teammates names

  4. Referee restarts play.

We all know this is not the way it is supposed to go. For starters, the substitutes are to be waiting at the halfway line BEFORE the next substitution opportunity. They need to be ready to go in the game. The good referee will be aware of their presence, usually aided by the assistant referee on the team side of the field. At the next opportunity, the coach requests the substitution ("Sub!").

After the referee grants permission, the appropriate players are to exit the field. One thing youth players are not aware of, or don't consider, is they are to exit the field at the nearest point. They are not supposed to go directly to the bench from the far corners of the field. This is something you may want to remind the players of in your pre-game talk. After the players are off the field, the substitutes are beckoned onto the field, becoming players. Be aware of the substitute that does not enter the field. This often happens when there is a throw in on the team side of the field. The thrower is being removed from the game and replaced by a substitute. The substitute must step on the field before they become a player. Of course, all of this is spelled out in Law 3 under the "Substitution Procedure" heading.

Recently, I decided to start enforcing the procedure to see what would happen. Because most teams are conditioned to do the procedure incorrectly, I always announce my intent, in a friendly way, before the start of the game. I usually say something like this to the coaches at the start of the game:

Coach, let's make sure we have a proper substitution procedure today. If you could help me by making sure your subs are at the halfway line when they want to come in I'd appreciate it. Also, they should stay there until the players come off the field. As a reminder, players can, and should, exit at the nearest touch line.

I usually say this during the pre-game talk in the presence of the players. That is usually enough to get them pretty close to doing it right. At the first substitution, the players might start to run right on the field as soon as you blow the whistle. This is what they are accustomed to. Inevitably, the coach has either not mentioned it to them or mentioned it without any enthusiam. So, at the first sign of a substitution, position is everything. You need to run to the halfway line and be pretty close to the team benches so you can blow the whistle a couple of times and "remind" the players that they must wait at the touch line for the players to come off the field. This usually does the trick for the entire game. For the most part, this strict enforcement has been met without complaint. I have heard a few gripes about it "slowing the game down," but you can point out that you'll be adding time for substitutions as allowed for in Law 7.

Naturally, this brings up the problem of tournaments that do not allow the referee to add time. You cannot just go ahead and add time in tournaments that specify no time will be added. As some of my earlier posts have noted, you must keep your games on time. Since you agreed to the assignment, you also agreed to the rules. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about it. The good news is you didn't write the rules, you are only enforcing them.

The results have been very positive. I feel like the game is more under my control. Yes, there can be a little friction with the coaches, especially when it is a close game and they have frequent substitutions, but most of them understand the value. To some extent, it does slow the game down, but it doesn't waste game time. They are really two different things. Following the procedure can allow for high emotions to be somewhat diffused, adding to your game control. Following the substitution procedure is one less thing that can go wrong in a game. Try it and you'll be a better referee for it.

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